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Maurizio Sarri: Eden Hazard Appearance vs. Slavia Prague Not in Original Plan

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Maurizio Sarri revealed after Chelsea’s 1-0 UEFA Europa League victory at Slavia Prague on Thursday that he did not originally plan to introduce Eden Hazard from the bench. 

Chelsea laboured for much of their quarter-final first leg at the Sinobo Stadium. But they were much improved after Hazard was brought on just before the hour mark, and Marcos Alonso scored a crucial away goal four minutes from time (U.S. and UK only, respectively):

Bleacher Report Live @brlive

.@ChelseaFCinUSA find the late breakthrough by way of Marcos Alonso 🔵

Watch the final minutes NOW on #BRLive: https://t.co/1f8bMrc3nN https://t.co/IjTcuO6qoc

Football on BT Sport @btsportfootball

Chelsea make the breakthrough late on! 🔵

A sublime cross by Willian and a thumping header from Marcos Alonso!

Big. Away. Goal. 👊 https://t.co/lApLKVYaw2

Asked whether he had it in mind to use Hazard from the bench ahead of the match, Sarri said, per Nick Purewal of Press Association Sport (h/t MailOnline):

“No, at the beginning of the match I wanted him on the bench because I thought that, probably, the match was really very difficult. Probably I’d need to use him. Of course, if at the end of the first half we were 1-0, I wouldn’t have used him.”

Hazard has been Chelsea’s most effective player this season, netting 16 goals and providing 12 assists in 32 Premier League games:

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Eden Hazard has been directly involved in 28 goals this season, the most for any player in the Premier League 🔥 https://t.co/GC1b8M16Cn

The Belgian will be vital for the Blues when they visit Anfield on Sunday to take on league leaders Liverpool.

A victory on Merseyside would be huge for Chelsea, as it would be a big step to securing a top-four spot and qualifying for next season’s UEFA Champions League:

Premier League @premierleague

HUGE matches incoming

#PL https://t.co/Fc53Gs3A8S

The Europa League also provides Chelsea with a potential route back to Europe’s elite club competition, as they will get a place in the 2018-19 Champions League if they win it.

Despite their below-par performance, Alonso’s late goal means Chelsea are even heavier favourites to advance to the last four of the Europa League.

An away goal is such a crucial commodity in European ties, and Sarri’s side will be widely expected to win the return leg at Stamford Bridge on Thursday.

Given the results in Thursday’s other Europa League ties, Chelsea’s most likely semi-final opponents are Benfica after they beat Eintracht Frankfurt 4-2 at the Estadio da Luz.

On the other side of the draw, Arsenal won 2-0 at home to Napoli and Valencia beat Villarreal 3-1 at El Madrigal.